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What the F? Fitness, form and fluidity are Liverpool’s big concerns

14:57 EAT 23/01/2017
HD Liverpool
Key players are not at full sharpness, while crucial options are nowhere near their best with Liverpool falling worryingly flat as fatigue sets in


As the biting cold caught greater hold and the reality of a bitter result set in at Anfield on Saturday afternoon, the autopsy was underway. How did Liverpool surrender their unblemished home record to struggling Swansea City, who aside from Arsenal and Tottenham, had also allowed West Brom, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and West Ham to put three or more past them?

How did Liverpool go from control to comedy to level to losers in an unthinkable 3-2 defeat so sharply? How did they thrice get undone by a side who had not managed to score that many away from home in the league all season? One that had never won at Anfield in 15 previous attempts?

Jurgen Klopp identified the core causes immediately after the encounter: the defending was “100 per cent not good enough,” there were too many lapses in concentration and not enough patience and inventiveness in possession.

Liverpool's title dreams turning to dust

All of the above was an accurate dissection of the display, but Liverpool’s issues against Paul Clement’s men are part of a wider problem. 

They have triumphed just once in 2017, unconvincingly in the FA Cup replay at Plymouth Argyle, and aside from the titanic performance in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, have looked a shadow of the side that shook the opposition earlier in the season. 

There have been question marks about squad depth, but the bench on Saturday read: Loris Karius, Joel Matip, Lucas, Alberto Moreno, Divock Origi, Ben Woodburn and Daniel Sturridge. That is two of the Bundesliga’s best players for 2015-16, an experienced stand-in, a Europa League winner, a Belgium international, one of the most exciting young talents in Europe and an England striker. 

Those are some options to have.

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And the starting line-up contained just one absentee from Liverpool’s best 11, Sadio Mane, whose dazzling club form has been transferred to Senegal during the Africa Cup of Nations

He is, of course, a weighty miss - his speed allowing the team to transition quicker, his desire to take on his marker offering the Reds a more direct, menacing outlet. He adds goals, assists and the desire to defend from the front.

But Liverpool had long known the 24-year-old would depart for international duty and while assessing the market for wide forwards, were also confident they could find solutions within the squad for Mane’s absence, albeit not in a like-for-like manner.

And herein lies the problem. Sturridge, his class and finishing expertise unquestionable, is a shadow of himself. Origi, equally, is currently nowhere near the player that led the line at Lille. As Klopp pointed out, both are lacking rhythm and the kind of sharpness the attack could really do with and as such, Adam Lallana has been stationed in the front three when his brilliance is more obvious and effective from further back. 

Matip, meanwhile, was only on the bench against Swansea due to a wrangle with Cameroon, who wanted the defender sanctioned from domestic games during AFCON. 

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However, having not played since the 2-2 draw with West Ham on December 11 due to a troublesome ankle and then needing to wait for FIFA to declare him eligible to feature for Liverpool while the tournament is on, the centre-back cannot be at his apex physically. He was given an hour in the Under-23s win over Ipswich on Sunday to assist with this. 

Three vital members of the XI at Anfield were also not at their fittest. Philippe Coutinho is still brushing off the effects of ankle ligament damage. Nathaniel Clyne had to numb the pain of a rib/abdominal issue to feature, while captain Jordan Henderson continues to push past a nagging heel problem.

Beyond that, Emre Can has been ponderous when Liverpool need punch in the centre of the park. The German is another playing well below his capabilities, while Ragnar Klavan swings between being proactive to haven’t-a-clue-here, with Dejan Lovren not the picture of consistency either.

Klopp’s charges are not withering under expectations, but by the consequences of form and fitness diving while fatigue is on the rise given the demands of the schedule.

With an approach centered on energy, intensity and taking the initiative with or without the ball, this is far from ideal. And considering the composition at the top end of the table, the timing is awful. 

However, Klopp and his backroom team will not be stuck on the symptoms of their slide, but on the solutions. Last January was as dire for the Merseysiders - by this stage a year ago, they had won two out of seven fixtures. 

But from Valentine’s Day, they went on to suffer defeat just four times in 23 matches across all competitions - one of which was the Europa League semi-final defeat at Villarreal that was emphatically cancelled out in the second-leg at Anfield, with another coming in the climax of the competition against Sevilla.

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Liverpool have shown an appetite to strike back on several occasions under the 49-year-old and will need to summon their fighting spirit to reverse their January slump and steer the rest of the season towards their ambitions. 

The interest in the teams above them can very quickly descend into concern about those below.